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Speaker: Wisconsin gerrymandering 'worst' in U.S.

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MENOMONIE – Gerrymandering of voting districts in Wisconsin is one of the worst in the nation, said Jay Heck last week.

Heck, executive director of Wisconsin Common Cause, explained to an audience of nearly 80 people what was meant by “gerrymandering” and how it distorts citizens’ votes. He spoke at the first public forum held by the newly-formed local branch of Wisconsin League of Women Voters.

After the 10-year census of U.S. population, each state must re-draw electoral districts to reflect population shifts. Wisconsin’s constitution requires that the state legislative and congressional districts be re-drawn by the state legislature.

Redistricting, as the redesign of voting districts is called, used to be an issue that bored people. “Now, it’s one of the hot issues, not just in Wisconsin but in the nation,” Heck said, noting that voting districts determine public policy.

“Usually … it was done in a fairly even-handed manner,” Heck said. For five redistricting events in Wisconsin – more than 50 years – Republicans and Democrats worked out a compromise even though they both had partisan interests at heart.

It worked because government was divided where one party had one house and the other party had the other house. “No one party had a huge advantage,” he said.

With the Republican wave of 2010 in which the party won both houses and the governorship of Wisconsin, Heck explained, Republicans employed a plan developed years earlier where legislative lines guaranteed Republican control of state government. Republican legislators packed Milwaukee and Madison into “safe” democratic seats, and designed other regions of the state to lock in the Republican advantage of 2011.

Disenfranchised

The result was that in the 2012 election, although 52 percent of the population cast ballots for Democrats, only 39 of the 99 Assembly seats went to Democrats, Heck reported. The Republican minority vote took a majority, 60 of 99, seats.

According to Heck, none of the Wisconsin Congressional districts are now competitive and only nine of the 99 Assembly seats are “remotely competitive”. While gerrymandering — distorted redistricting — has always been part of the process, “it’s never been to this excess.”

Young people now realize their vote doesn’t matter, he told the group: “People in Wisconsin have been effectively disenfranchised.”

A lawsuit over Wisconsin’s gerrymandering is now before the U.S. Supreme Court and awaits the justices’ decision to accept it for review. Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel appealed a federal court ruled that the state legislature must redraw voting districts by November 2017.

In the lawsuit, Whitford v. Gill, a three-judge federal panel found Wisconsin’s redistricting to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander violating both the Equal Protection Clause and the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to freedom of association.

The districts were designed in secrecy inside the law offices of the Republican leaders in 2011. The minority party was locked out, the public had no chance to review the plan, and Republicans were forced to sign an oath of secrecy, Heck said: “We have effectively in Wisconsin disenfranchised many voters.”

While racial gerrymandering is recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as unconstitutional, partisan gerrymandering has until now been exempt from recognition. Wisconsin’s suit asks the Supreme Court to recognize partisan redistricting as violations of the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

The solution, says Heck, is to adopt the Iowa method for redistricting. Iowa’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency places civil employees in charge of redrawing voting districts according to strict criteria. The criteria respect town and city boundaries and maintain counties, with no input from legislators. The resulting maps are then voted upon by the legislature.

“Iowa mandates only the criteria into law, and competitiveness flows naturally out of it,” Heck said.

Wisconsin’s redistricting has cost taxpayers $2.2 million so far “to defend hyper-partisan redistricting,” Heck said. Iowa’s redistricting process costs $640 every 10 years.

The state is on track to pay another $175,000 for an amicus brief for Attorney General Schimel’s appeal to the Supreme Court. In addition, Wisconsin taxpayers will pay $300 an hour to attorneys with no cap on the total, “to assist in defending these indefensible maps,” Heck said, adding, “Iowans want to save the taxpayers money. There’s no such consideration in Wisconsin.”

The Dunn County Board went on record at its April meeting in support of nonpartisan redistricting. In addition, two redistricting measures are currently stalled in the state Legislature. Both measures, SB13 and AB44, require fair and impartial, nonpartisan redistricting.

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